I am experimenting with kombucha and its culinary uses, but for daily drinking I prefer water kefir. It’s a fermented drink with a mildly yeasty tangy flavor and none of the vinegary overtones of kombucha. It can be flavored in a lot of ways, and it’s quick and fun to make.
It’s produced by a SCOBY, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, but rather than form a solid mat the kefir SCOBY forms rounded globules called “grains.” I had trouble getting started because I kept buying dehydrated grains that never came to life. Finally I bought fresh grains from Florida Sun Kefir and they got off to a flying start. The substrate is water with 1/4 cup of sugar per quart of water dissolved in it. I use a mixture of white and coconut sugar, and brew about two quarts at a time. Pour the water mixture over the grains, screw the lid on loosely or cover with a dish towel tied on tightly, and let it sit at room temperature for 36-48 hours. The grains are in motion during fermentation, rising through the fluid, discharging their cargo of carbon dioxide into the air, and sinking slowly back to the bottom of the jar. They will slow down as the sugar is exhausted. I tell when it’s ready by tasting. When the sugar is fermented totally and none is detectable to taste, it’s done. I pour off most of the fluid in the jar through a mesh strainer and refrigerate until I want to drink it. If you want yours a bit sweet, stop sooner, but I prefer to sweeten artificially before drinking. Leave the grains in enough finished kefir to cover them, add more sugar water, and the grains are off and running again. I then add flavoring and some artificial sweetener, carbonate in my nifty Drinkmate, and enjoy. My favorite flavorings are vanilla or a little good root beer extract or a bit of grated ginger juice. There are all sorts of possibilities including adding fruit juice.`
I can’t explain this, but water kefir really does seem to decrease appetite. I don’t vouch for this effect because I do not find any scientific literature on it except the one animal-model reference below, but try it for yourself and see what you think.
Your grains will multiply steadily and always need food. If you want to store them for awhile, put the jar in the refrigerator immediately after adding fresh sugar water and they will keep about two weeks. For longer storage, drain them every two weeks and add fresh sugar water. You’ll soon have plenty of grains to give to friends. Internet sources tell you to add dried fruit and eggshells for minerals, but I have never done that and my grains multiply just fine. It might be that the coconut sugar I use provides the grains with any minerals that they need. My grains are tan rather than white after several generations in coconut sugar.
In the picture below, what looks like a film on the surface is actually a haze of tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide bursting.
One caveat: I can’t find reliable data on this but judging from its effect on me I think that my homebrew kefir has substantially more alcohol that most SCOBY-brewed products, maybe as much as 2-3%. This might not sound like much, but you don’t want to work or drive on the amount of alcohol in a standard 12oz glass. I keep this for evening enjoyment. But I may be incorrect about this,or brewing conditions may affect the ethanol content. Here’s a marvelously nerdy article analyzing the components of water kefir: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3993195/pdf/zam2564.pdf
I can’t stop talking about the marvelous Noma Guide to Fermentation. It doesn’t address water kefir specifically, but I’m curious about the possibilities of cooked-down kefir essence used in the way that the Noma people use kombucha essence. It might also be possible to grow out water kefir grains in other fluids such as juices. After making a few batches of standard water kefir, you will have plenty of grains with which to experiment.
Many internet sources that discuss water kefir give references for its health benefits. However, I spent a cold gray afternoon indoors looking up those references and found that, as I had suspected, nearly all of them actually refer to milk kefir. I don’t find a lot of data on whether water kefir contains the same microorganisms as the milk product, and certainly its nutrient content is different. Here are a few references on water kefir specifically.
Inhibition of metastasis of breast cancer cells in vitro and in vivo in a mouse model:
This last one is particularly interesting because the mice given kefir matrix exopolysaccharides showed anti-obesity effects on an excessive diet and also showed higher levels of Akkermansia bacteria in their feces. Other data (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3670398/ ) indicates that the presence of Akkermansia species in both rats and humans inversely correlates with obesity, probably via interactions with the gut epithelium. Please don’t try to make too much of this: the science of the biome is in its infancy and we know very little about how to impact it for specific effects. So I can only say that water kefir won’t hurt you and may have some beneficial effect.
For the previous decades of my adulthood I had little or no interest in winemaking because I’m fond of good red wines and suspected that it would cost plenty to make wine at home and not produce a great result because I don’t have the right facilities for aging. But over the last year I’ve started fermenting lower-alcohol wines, meads, and cyzers meant to be consumed within their first year. They are not made to be fussed over but to be quaffed casually and with immediate pleasure. They are made as casually as they are consumed, without all the tedious sterilization, measuring, and worrying that so often saps the fun out of home brewing.
My bible for fermenting for fun is the delightful Make Mead Like a Viking, by Jerome Zimmerman. It’s a fun read and offers a few explicit recipes and lots of general information and assurance that your distant ancestors did this without making a big deal about it and so can you. Don’t invest in a lot of sterilization equipment because soap-and-water clean is fine. Don’t worry about exact recipes because it’s part of the fun to try something different every time. I will not be giving any explicit instructions here, just a general idea of what I do, because if you are an experienced fermenter you will be familiar with these principles and if you aren’t you need the book.
The equipment to get started is Mr. Zimmerman’s book, a couple of 2-gallon plastic brewing buckets and fermentation locks, a 6-foot or so length of food-grade plastic tubing for siphoning, some clean gallon bottles for the finished wine, and ingredients. Sugar, honey, or fruit juice provide the food for the yeast. A packet of commercial wine yeast gets you off to a good start, although wild yeast isn’t that hard to use. Personally I don’t go in for the equipment that allows you to calculate your finished alcohol level precisely. I rely on the following general proportions: a pound of honey or about 1.5 pounds of sugar per gallon of water ferments out to 4.5 or 5% alcohol. Double the sweetener per per gallon and it ends up at about 10%. Once you’re up to triple sweetener per gallon, your yeast is likely to be killed off at some point and leave you with residual sugar, unless you used champagne yeast, which tolerates a lot of alcohol. But then your drink is “hotter” and higher alcohol than I’m looking for. Quadruple sweetener will in my opinion leave you with syrup, although some people love the effect. Apple juice will ferment out to about 4% alcohol, more if you add sweetener or sweeter juices. For the most part, I plan to finish at about 7.5% alcohol, 10% at absolute maximum.
Flavoring depends on what you’re in the mood for. Don’t be afraid to experiment. One of my favorite late-summer wines was made by juicing three cantaloupes and adding the juice to a gallon of apple juice, along with half a pound of sugar dissolved in 3 cups of water. Another remarkable wine was made with a dozen juiced prickly pears, the juice of two blood oranges, and a gallon of water sweetened with honey and sugar in equal parts, with one of the squeezed blood orange halves thrown in to ferment in the liquid for the first two weeks. Prickly pears have little flavor but exquisite color, and this wine, which can be seen above and in the picture at the top of this post, is one of my favorites. So far I’ve used juice from my own grapevine, blackcurrant juice, juiced aronia berries, juiced blackberries, and juiced dark cherries. I always prefer honey as the sweetener, but some people don’t care for its earthy undertone, so sugar is easier on some palates.
Apple-strawberry cyzer, shown above, is another surprise favorite with a subtle note of strawberry that makes for delicate, delicious sipping.
Blackcurrant mead is musky-sweet on the palate.
Although I may make 5 gallon batches of things that came out well if I can get the materials, I always start with between a gallon and gallon and a half, which fits neatly into a 2 gallon fermentation bucket. Make up the mixture of your choice, put it in a clean bucket, snap the lid on, and fit a fermentation lock. Make sure you have put fluid in the lock to the right level. I use vodka instead of water in the fermentation lock, to make sure that no intrepid fruit flies get through and turn the wine to vinegar. Then, wait at least three weeks. Sometimes you will hear the must making surprising noises, and when it starts to ferment actively the fermentation lock will make an attractive gurgling sound. After 3 to 4 weeks, open the bucket making sure not to shake it around and disturb the sediment, and siphon the fluid off the yeast and other sediment into a second clean bucket. Cover it, put a fermentation lock on, and let it sit for another 3 to 4 weeks. Again siphon the wine or mead or cyzer off the sediment, this time putting it in a gallon bottle and put any of that won’t fit into clean wine bottles or canning jars. Of course you could put it all in bottles, but I prefer to avoid the fuss of cleaning and storing all those bottles. At this point, taste it. Generally it will be fermented out dry, and many fruit mixtures taste better when a little sweetness is added back. If I feel that it needs some sweetness, I sweeten very cautiously with pure liquid sucralose, stirring and tasting after each drop so that I don’t overdo it. If you prefer you can use sugar, but remember that it must be stored in the refrigerator after that, and even so, the yeast will slowly ferment away your added sugar and produce pressure inside the bottle that can lead to a minor but messy explosion.
You can filter repeatedly if you want a sparkling clear product, but I do think you lose flavor in the process and I generally don’t.
Store in the refrigerator. Often these ferments taste better cold, and if you do want to drink them at room temperature just get them out of the refrigerator an hour before wanted. They do not have a high alcohol content to preserve them, and so cold storage serves this function. Plan to drink them within a few months. I have made higher alcohol meads that I kept for much longer times, and they certainly improved with keeping, but if the alcohol content is low they aren’t likely to hold in good condition.
If you really start enjoying yourself and want to get wilder, you will want to own Pascal Bauder’s The Wildcrafting Brewer, in which wildcrafted ingredients and wild yeasts are used to produce drinks that are the essence of a particular bit of earth at a particular time.
I first wrote about red wine vinegar in 2009, and while I have made and consumed it steadily since then, there didn’t seem to be much more to say about it. My husband gifted me with a marvelously cool 2 gallon oak barrel to keep it in, but the vinegar was the same. But then came The Noma Guide to Fermentation, and I’m left wondering why I was so unimaginative. Their chapter on vinegars has lots of interesting ideas but the ones that excite me the most are elderberry “balsamic” and black garlic “balsamic.” I suspect that I will end up combining the two, since I have some elderberry wine fermenting and the port-like notes should be a perfect complement to the deep umami of black garlic, and for even more depth I’ll use red wine vinegar to start the acetic fermentation. Basically, if you have a good strong vinegar mother, you can ferment anything mildly alcoholic into vinegar. The acetobacter bacillus converts ethanol to acetic acid in the presence of oxygen, so if you want to use your own fruit you need to ferment it into wine first, but that’s easy enough. Once you have wine or mead or hard cider to ferment into vinegar, you can do it in quart mason jars, with a dish towel tied tightly over the top to allow oxygen in and prevent winged visitors, and make several kinds of vinegar in a square foot of counter space. Or if you have a lot of ideas and a tolerant spouse, you can occupy all available surfaces. Just make sure you have a plan for what to do with it. You can cook with it as detailed in my 2009 post, and if you still have too much it makes a fair non-alcoholic drink stirred into sparkling water. Stir a shot into a tall glass of chilled sparkling water, with some natural or artificial sweetener. I like a shake of cinnamon on top. This isn’t a kid’s drink, and only the adults are likely to enjoy it, and not all of them by any means. Some will dislike the sharp edge, and a dash of fruit juice or a little honey may take the curse off for them. But those of us who drank the old cider-vinegar-and-honey drink growing up generally came to enjoy the sweet-sour flavor and like this use of vinegar.
This is already known to everyone, but it bears occasional repeating: you can also infuse vinegar with nearly anything that suits your fancy. Tarragon is a classic, but I prefer thyme infused in red wine vinegar, using about one big bunch of thyme per pint of vinegar. Flavorful fruits are also a possibility. Be aware that Acetobacter does one thing superbly well, and that is converting ethanol to acetic acid. If you add any source of unfermented sugar directly to your ferment, it will remain as sugar. You can use this effect deliberately to make fascinating semi-sweet or agrodolce vinegars. One that I particularly enjoyed was made by dehydrating Concord grapes from my vine until they were somewhat shriveled and approaching the raisin stage, covering them with red wine vinegar, blending with a stick blender until the grapes were roughly chopped, and then infusing the mixture for a couple of weeks. The grape bits were then strained out, and the vinegar was richly flavored, barely sweet, and carried some of the unique tang of the Concord grape. I’m looking forward to making pomegranate vinegar in the near future. Blackberry vinegar would probably be wonderful.
It may be that live vinegar contributes to your biome and general health, and definitely it contains the antioxidants of the original wine with little or none of the alcohol.
If you get interested in culinary uses for your vinegar, you will enjoy Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat. The section on acid in cooking is invaluable and will lead you to analyze food that lies a bit too heavy on the tongue and realize that a bit of acid could have sparked it to deliciousness. Canal House makes and uses a lot of vinegar in their cooking, and you can find some recipes and a good article on making vinegar here.
The vinegar “mother” is a great example of a SCOBY or pellicle, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast that create a matrix and keep reproducing as long as they have a food supply. They busily make vinegar, kombucha,water or milk kefir, or other things depending on the particular microorganisms. You can see the vinegar mother well in this borrowed shot:
Your mother is very versatile and can make vinegar of anything alcoholic as long as the proof isn’t too high. Be aware that a mother formed in red wine will carry red pigment for quite a while, and if you put it in white wine or hard cider you will have rose’ vinegar. The mothers look a bit like placentas:
If you have a healthy one, the question always arises of what to do with the “pups” or new layers of mother that are continually forming. Some people eat them, but then some people eat their own placentas. No judgement implied, but I wouldn’t eat either one. If your friends don’t want one, put it in the compost or bury it in the garden or whatever makes you feel okay about letting go of it.
I have often read that restaurant Noma in Copenhagen is the best restaurant in the world now that El Bulli has closed. These all-time-best commendations always annoy me because I always suspect that the real best restaurant in the world is some Thai or Indonesian street stand that makes something out of nearly nothing and does it perfectly. That said, having read Noma’s new guide to fermentation, I am willing to believe that Noma might be the best restaurant in the world, because they have certainly expanded the age-old art of fermentation beyond anything I have previously encountered. The book covers all forms of fermentation except the purely alcoholic ones that produce wines and beers. There are detailed sections on lactic fermentation, kombucha, vinegars, kogi, miso, shoyu, garum, and the enzymatic blackening that produces black garlic and much more if you let it. There are fascinating asides on how to use the resulting liquids and solids in dishes and as seasonings. They observe that, to their own surprise, the variety and depth of flavor produced is so profound that they may become a largely vegetarian restaurant.
Many people think of fermented products largely in health terms, a “gut shot” of probiotics. But playing with the Noma ideas, I’m experimenting with the essences that result when fermented products are cooked down. They are no longer live, but they’ Delicious. I love to keep chicken and beef glacé in the freezer to add depth, body, and a suave finish to even the simplest sauces, and cooked-down ferments may fill a similar role.
There is commentary on things that I will never intentionally try, such as the culinary use of insects. I’m well aware of all the arguments in favor, but I’m too acculturated against it to approach it with an open mind. So, their cricket garum isn’t going to be an item in my diet anytime soon. But less rigid cooks may want to experiment.
Under Noma’s influence, the large insulated but unheated shed that I use for painting has become a busy fermentation facility. I have so many experiments going that I will never have time to write about most of them, so buy the book. I don’t accept review copies, and when I review a book, I paid the same price for it that you will pay. There is no other way that I can realistically assess the value/money ratio. About this one, I can only say that it is very hard to put a price on a book that can invigorate your entire daily cooking routine and open up a new range of flavors.
Most of the trees in my yard are fruit trees, and many of them are coming into full maturity and bearing potential. I was looking forward to a succession of harvests this summer, when fate intervened in the form of one small, scrawny squirrel. She showed up under my birdfeeder last winter, looking like she was near death. It was fun to see her crouched outside the kitchen door eating seeds, and I even put out a few special treats for her. She grew fat and sleek, and in late spring she reappeared after a disappearance with five baby squirrels bouncing around behind her. They had a very high adorable factor, and when they destroyed some green fruit I did not make too big a fuss about it. Then they disappeared, and I began to see squirrels around the rest of my neighborhood. Then, predictably, mother squirrel showed up with six new babies. The remaining fruit was ripe, and they harvested it all. I mean all of it. A large prune plum tree, strung with plums so heavily that the branches looked like blue rope, was stripped in a couple of days. I was able to eat about five peaches before they were gone. Apples gone. Cherries gone. I was reduced to buying local fruit at the farmers market, a sad comedown for somebody who has been tending fruit trees for the last decade.
Fortunately, it turns out that squirrels don’t like quinces. My tree was loaded, and I set out to discover what could be done with quinces. I made a ton of chutney, and made some membrillo to serve with cheese, but my favorite use is as a base for a flourless chocolate torte. The original idea came from one of my favorite food sites, Food 52, and was based on eggplant. You can read it here: https://food52.com/recipes/77833-ian-knauer-s-chocolate-eggplant-cakes. I made it once as written and liked it, but I felt that it could be improved upon. Quinces have an aromatic overtone and a lot of pectin, which helps this cake set.
You will need a special ingredient, black cocoa powder. I use Onyx brand. The cake is not the same without it. I keep it lower-carb with the use of special sweeteners which can only be obtained online: Sola sweetener and Truly Zero sucralose. If you choose to use other sweeteners from the grocery store, be aware that they are probably not really low carb at all, because most of them contain ingredients that can raise your blood sugar. Also, the texture and mouthfeel may be drastically affected. If you eat sugar, you can forget those two ingredients and sweeten it with sugar to taste. Otherwise, the only significant carbohydrates present are from the chocolate and quince, and quince is not a sweet fruit.
Start with one large or two smaller quinces. Scrub the fuzz off with a scrub brush, but don’t peel them. Most of the pectin is in the peel. Cut them in quarters, cut the core out, and steam them for about 25 minutes or until easily penetrated with a fork. Preheat oven to 300 degrees and line an 8” cake pan with parchment paper. In a double boiler or (very carefully) in a microwave at lower power, melt 2 4oz bars of Baker’s unsweetened chocolate and one full-size bar of excellent dark chocolate, 84-85% cacao content. Put the soft quince flesh in the blender and grind to a perfectly smooth paste with enough heavy cream to keep the mixture blending smoothly, usually about a cup. A Vitamix does a great job of this. Quinces are pretty fibrous, so make sure it is blended smooth. Scrape the mixture out into a mixing bowl. It will already be stiffening from all the pectin, so use a heavy wooden spoon for the rest of the mixing. Beat in eight egg yolks, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon baking powder, 2 teaspoons vanilla, a few scrapes of freshly grated nutmeg, 1/2 cup Sola sweetener, and 7 drops Truly Zero sweetener. Otherwise, sweeten with sugar to taste. Beat in the melted chocolate, and last, beat in half a cup of black cocoa powder. It will be really stiff by now and need a fair amount of muscle power. Taste, only if you are okay with raw egg, and adjust the sweetness if needed. This amount of sweetener gives a semisweet result.
Scrape into the parchment-lined pan, spread around neatly (it won’t spread in the oven, so get it the way you want it,) and bake at 300 until a clean knife comes out almost clean. Then-this is important-let it sit for at least 8 hours before you cut it, so it can firm up. Serve at room temp or slightly warmed, Never cold, with or without whipped cream, and enjoy. My motto is “Chocolate is food, not dessert,” and I have eaten a wedge of this cake for lunch on occasion.
I have frozen a number of one-torte portions of blended quince flesh and cream, ready to make this cake all winter.
In an earlier post, A Little Hen Science, I linked to a study showing the health difference to the eater between a well-produced egg and a poorly produced one. Today I am going to throw out some brief notes about what is possible when you feed your own chickens. First, my chickens are not pastured. My area has a lively band of coyotes, and the hens have to be in a fenced run with a roof over it to be safe. So I gather the pasture and bring it to the hens. Every day they get a huge pile of leafy weeds, green garden veggies that I’m not going to use in time, windfall fruit, and veggie scraps from the table. When the goat is in milk, they get whey and any discard milk, all greens-fed of course. They get grain and flaxseed free-choice. I have looked into the possibility of growing black soldier fly larvae to provide them with extra protein, but that notion dropped dead when I saw a video of the inside of a “bug pod“ designed to produce them. I have a strong stomach generally, but it does not extend to masses of writhing larvae. So I throw the ladies any squash bugs, cabbage loopers, snails, etc. that show up, and cook any eggs that get too old for human or canine use into “chicken cake“ to give them some extra protein. You can also buy freeze dried meal worms for the same purpose, although they are pretty expensive. I keep a bag of organic turmeric around, and throw a tablespoon or two in every time I cook up a chicken cake, and also throw in a handful of Thorvin kelp meal to make sure that they are getting all their minerals.
The result can be seen above. On the left of the photo is the yolk of the best pastured eggs that I am able to buy in my local co-op. On the right is a yolk from one of my hens. That’s a pretty good illustration of how many carotenoids you can fit into one egg yolk. This is even more impressive given that the chicken who produced this egg is the only leghorn in my flock, and the leghorn is a breed often scorned by people with a home flock because the egg shells are white. As you can see, they are industrious foragers and will practically eat their own weight in greens, and they are also prolific layers. There’s nothing not to like about them, and when some of my old ladies succumb to old age, I will get a few more leghorns. But any hen will lay better eggs if her nutrition is top-notch, and if her nutrition is top-notch, yours will be too.
Gardening is a pleasure and a labor of love, and it’s also part of a bigger picture of resilience. I think about resilience a lot these days, on every level from national and international to personal. Much of the time there is little or, arguably, nothing that I can do for those larger systems, but on any average day I can attend to my own household system. I can make reasonable plans for the future and remain as flexible as possible about things that can’t be predicted.
One thing that can be predicted is aging. We can do a lot toward aging well, but *spoiler alert* we will still age. I realized this when I had a few years of orthopedic issues that made it painful to walk and impossible to dig. It made me start shifting toward a permanent mulch system in part of my yard, so that as long as I can kneel to plant and can spread some straw around, I can harvest food. I started the mulched beds by heaping animal manure and bedding a foot thick over the whole area, but this was a one-time job and the labor involved can be hired. Straw bales can be delivered and set where you need them for a small extra fee, and spreading them is light work. Let the whole setup mellow for several months if the manure was fresh, and start planting the following spring. Straw breaks down quickly and has to be replenished a few times a year, which is great because it builds the soil and creates an incredibly active layer of worms and tiny critters of all sorts. It also holds water tenaciously, which is critically important in my desert area.
Some perennial weeds come up through thick mulch, so there is some pulling to do. In my area, silver nightshade is the chief invader. I have started letting it flower before I pull it, because bumblebees love the flowers.
Other perennial weeds are far more delightful. Common milkweed was my favorite perennial wild edible when I lived in the Northeast, and I’m creating a few patches of it here to feed us if there are years that I can’t plant annual vegetables. As the seedpods mature I’m moving them to new parts of the yard. This spring I noticed that some seedlings struggled up through thick mulch, saving me the usual labor of weeding around the tiny plants for a couple of years while they get established, so this fall I will try just “planting” seed pods here and there under mulch to see if I can start new clumps that way. Once well established a clump of milkweed takes care of itself, and it’s pretty hard for other weeds to get a foothold. The delicious shoots emerge late in the spring, so be careful not to dig them up by mistake when the early-spring digging fervor hits you.
Nettles are a perennial vegetable that I have yapped on and on about until there’s little left to say. So all I will add here is: site them where you can control them and not get stung, cook them in spring when young and tender, whack the plants back aggressively to keep them in place, and harvest more shoots later on. I freeze the young leaves in large quantities to eat all year.
I’m always experimenting with things that may save work later on. I don’t eat potatoes very often but do like a few treats of new potatoes in season. I’m trying out the Chinese yam or cinnamon vine, a robust perennial vine that has sprays of cinnamon-scented flowers and then, on established vines, a large crop of tiny bulbils borne from the leaf joints that are said to taste like new potatoes. My vine is three years old and hasn’t formed any bulbils yet but I am hopeful that next year will be the year. The vine also forms a huge underground tuber that I can dig up and eat if I ever get that hungry. I understand that it tastes good, but digging is no longer my favorite thing.
Old established hops vines produce huge quantities of edible and delicious shoots in spring. They are much less work than asparagus, which tends to need a lot of weeding, but they are big heavy vines that want to romp away 20’ high if they get a chance, and require a really sturdy fence. I don’t brew beer anymore because we no longer drink much of it, but if you brew, there’s another clear advantage to growing them.
A deep permanent mulch creates a living and lively ecosystem and you can watch its capacities change over the years. I’ve tried for years to grow blackberries, but in my very alkaline clay in broiling sun they were a no-go. Now, in mulch with some shade, they are thriving.
European elderberries, Sambucus nigra, are another desired plant that I was never able to grow until the mulch provided a more hospitable habitat.